Contentment Series: The Normalcy of More (Part 2)
The growing normalcy of 'more' has been brewing in Western and Eastern cultures across the world since the Renaissance. In his compelling book, Empire of Things, Frank Trentmann traces the history of humans accumulating things from the 1500s to modern today.
The most insidious reality of the ‘more-ness’ that we have come into is *not* in regard to things he calls ‘conspicuous consumption’ — the things we typically consider extravagance in spending, like a yacht, a huge house, an expensive sports car, or the like. Ironically, the more pervasive issue with consumption is found in all the *little ways* we use things in our ‘normal’ life.
We are mainly dealing here with social habits and routines, not expressions of individual motivation and desire. The arrival of gas and water, the washing machine and the radio, and the growing pull of leisure activities were all important catalysts for rising levels of consumption. (p. 14, emphasis mine)
The problem, then, is not that critics of conspicuous consumption go too far but that they do not go far enough. The environmental challenge is out of proportion to their diagnosis. To put it differently, ‘waste’ does not just stem from morally suspect forms of consuming. A lot of it comes from practices that are considered ‘normal.’ It is precisely the usefulness of such habitual forms of consumption and their ‘normality’ that makes changing them so difficult. (p. 15)
In my travels outside the U.S., one of the most notable difference when returning home is air conditioning. Yes, the simple reality that we can be cool when it’s hot outside and warm when it’s cold outside is something that we have simply come to expect from our native environment. (Not that other countries lack central heating and air; rather, in several poorer countries, it is not a ‘given’ that you'll have it everywhere like it is in more wealthy countries.)
This is one easy example out of so many others from our daily lives that indicate we are wealthier than we typically realize or acknowledge.
Take a minute now to do an inventory of the items that belong to you.
How many screens (including TVs, phones, laptops, tablets, and desktop computers) do you have in your home?
Now add to that any other ‘smart’ devices you might have.
How many shirts?
How many ties if you’re a man, and how many skirts and dresses if you’re a woman?
Do you have constant access to the internet?
Do you have water and electricity?
What about your food situation — both groceries and dining habits — where do you shop/dine?
How prevalent is the availability of food for you?
Why can it be so hard to see what we have?
One important answer is: We can’t rest in what it means to have ‘enough.’ We're constantly obsessed with acquiring the next thing.
Trentmann makes one comment that could become a rabbit hole for discussion:
Advanced economies live or die by their ability to stimulate and maintain high levels of spending, with the help of advertising, branding and consumer credit. (p. 2)
Take a quick mental count of how many ads you’ve seen in the last hour. They all call out to us to jump into ‘more’! By nature, they try to tell us that they have what we need for this or that desire or necessity.
I’m not saying ads are evil — I work in marketing! Rather, the prevalence of advertising and the ubiquity of it creates in our minds constant in-roads to cult of consumerism, making it difficult to imagine a life where we rest in what we already have.
Tim Maurer, in his book Simple Money starts with the question of ‘enough.’ Here’s what he states about the connection between the concept of ‘wealth’ and ‘enough’:
The words money, riches, and wealth offer a fascinating study in etymology for terms that now appear almost synonymous. Money and riches have always meant something very close to what they mean today — currency and an abundance thereof.
The word wealth, however, has a deeper and more powerful meaning, one that has been obscured through successful attempts to commercialize and sell the dream that abundant riches equate to a life without care. Wealth’s true meaning is very close to the English words signifying contentment and Enough. (p. 23)
Contentment has to be the cornerstone of any conversation about personal finance, especially as it pertains to people of faith. But when we live in a cultural setting where consumerism shapes our social identification and where the constant invocation for ‘more’ pervades our sight, how can we step back and have a healthy view of money — one in which we see material wealth with God’s perspective?
Next week we'll begin to explore the source of all abundance...